Jordan Gross' deal ensures that the starting offensive line returns for 2009. Continuity and talent won't be problems for the upcoming season, and the team looks to be fairly deep as well.
Top backups are split on returning - backup tackles Jeremy Bridges and Frank Omiyale return. Backup C/G Mackenzie Bernardeau is returning, and the team moved quickly to re-sign practice squad OT Geoff Schwartz to a three year deal (not typical of players who haven't been able to make the roster). Bernardeau and Schwartz, 7th round picks in 2008, both have shown promise and will have a very good shot at staying on the roster fulltime in 2009.
However, key backup interior lineman Geoff Hangartner, who has started exactly half of the games he's been able to play in (27 of 54), is a free agent. He has been unable to be consistently good at guard, where he lacks inline power, but has shown competency at center. 15 of his starts were in 2006, where free agent Justin Hartwig remained injured throughout preseason and went down in the season opener as well.
Hangartner also showed as an able inline blocker at TE, where he was inserted at the goal line. The team had a very high power success rate in goal-to-go situations, and Hangartner was a big part of that. However, his inability to win the RG spot, the team's dedication to Ryan Kalil at center (where he's already playing at a near-Pro Bowl level), and the relative depth at the position overall means that hangartner may not be a part of the team's plans.
With Carolina cutting two effective reserves fighting for the RG spot as well (Milford Brown and Toniu Fonoti, who along with 2008 camp cut reserve Evan Mathis were able to find other employment fast enough), it's clear the team doesn't want millions in reserve money spent behind what will now be a high priced line ($9 mil per year at LT, $6 million per year at LG, $3 million per year and a first round, 2nd round pick for Jeff Otah).
That leaves Hangartner, who can probably start at center this year for many teams, able to easily leave in free agency, and that's probably going to happen. With the backup spots solid at LT, RT, the team may look to a few more options at guard and center, but the team does have internal options as well.
Bernardeau, a sleeper in the 08 draft, was very highly rated by many scouts and considered a steal at guard; because of his smarts, he was placed at center in camp and immediately took to it. He started the season as the third string center, but made the active roster as a reserve at guard and center. He could effectively fill the backup spot at center, keeping him active for all the games as a reserve. As well, with Omiyale and Bridges playing well in injury situations at tackle, the mauling size of Schwartz may be moved inside to guard to backup Vincent and Wharton.
The team could use a late pick on what appears a very deep and high value center draft, but there's a shot they could use a 3rd or 4th on a high value guard if that player shows both a lot of size and athleticism. The Panthers traditionally draft linemen in every draft - two in 2003 (including a 1st, Gross), one in 2004 (Wharton), two in 2005 and 2006, one in 2007 (2nd rounder Kalil), and three in 2008 (including the first for Otah, the trade away of the 2nd to get him, and the two 7th round picks). Only in 2002 has a John Fox-led team not drafted an offensive lineman within the first 90 players.